For a good two decades, Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at 84, was the ultimate American movie star.
In a time when method actors and ethnic faces were gradually taking over, he remained the last of the ramrod-straight, flinty, squinty, tough-as-old-hickory movie guys, a larger-than-life man who portrayed larger-than-life men.
While no cause of death was given, the Hollywood legend announced in 2002 that he had been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's.
On screen, Heston parted the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, drove the Moors from Spain in El Cid, painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in The Agony and the Ecstasy, baptized Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, gave him a drink of water in Ben-Hur and finally played God himself in Almost an Angel.
A longtime champion of civil rights, of government support of the arts and of gun ownership, the perennial activist — and Oscar winner, for Ben-Hur — may well have been the only pro-NEA, pro-NRA voice in Hollywood. He was Hollywood's pillar of conservatism, a figure who stood up and spoke out for his beliefs.
The classically trained actor came to Hollywood in 1950, just as movie acting was being transformed by the naturalism of Marlon Brando.
From his earliest performances in films such as The President's Lady (1953), Heston was a throwback, the hero braving an onslaught of antiheroes.
With his Olympian build, laser-blue eyes and an oracular baritone that made the simplest greeting sound like a proclamation, the 6-foot-3 actor was every inch and decibel the hero. He had the majesty of a sequoia — and could laugh heartily when critics said he was just as wooden as one. Few men and even fewer actors understood their strengths and their limitations as well as he did.
John Charles Carter was born in 1923 in Evanston, Ill. Before long, his parents moved to St. Helen, Mich. — big-tree country, he lovingly recalled in his 1995 memoir, In the Arena. "I liked chopping wood, as did Abraham Lincoln, Kaiser Wilhelm and Ronald Reagan, though I adduce no trickle-down virtue from this."
His parents divorced in 1933, and he grew close to his mother's second husband, Chet Heston, whose name he eventually took. His professional name was a combination of that and his mother's maiden name, Lila Charlton.
In his memoir, he described himself as "a nerd before the word had ever been invented — shy, short, pimply and ill-dressed." As with so many actors before and since, theater gave him a place to try on other personalities, which in turn gave him confidence. He earned a scholarship to Northwestern University, where he broke his nose playing football. A lucky break, as it turned out, because it gave him the profile of an eagle.
In 1943, he enlisted in the Army. After the war, he and his new wife, Lydia Clarke, sought their fortunes in New York and later in Hollywood.
Cecil B. DeMille took notice and cast Heston as the rough-hewn circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and then as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956).
The cavalcade of historical roles followed. Something distant and chiseled about Heston made directors think he was ideal to play figures of distant eras. Here was a hero with muscles and brains; even if when his Judah Ben-Hur was orating, it looked as if he'd rather be driving a chariot — and vice versa.
Information from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Washington Post was used in this report.